It’s time for the annual Thanksgiving feast, which for many includes mashed potatoes, green beans, yams, bread, squash, stuffing, Turkey, and dessert. We might gather around a table and each say one thing we’re thankful for. We might pray for those who spend the holiday alone, or on the street, or hungry. We might just dig in and eat and laugh and eat some more, until we collapse into a tryptophan coma. Then we’ll eat the leftovers as soup and sandwiches while we watch football and play games between naps and shopping trips, all the way through until January.
I have to admit that this stark description of Thanksgiving isn’t flattering. It reminds me that we seem to have given gratitude one day out of the year, and then turned it into something that is somehow about us. In my family growing up, we often had enough food at Thanksgiving to feed our family of four for at least a week, maybe more. But even with leftovers, we managed to devour the feast in a few days. Meanwhile, one of my neighbors was a single woman with two kids that I sometimes babysat for free. They were really struggling, and every year my brother and I packed up two paper grocery bags of all the Thanksgiving fixings for the three of them: a small turkey, a box of stuffing mix, some vegetables and rolls and canned pumpkin pie filling. One thing the kids always really looked forward to was olives. We always put in a can of whole black olives, and I could just imagine the kids each sticking the olives on the ends of their fingers and eating them off one by one. Olives were such a treat, they only got them at Thanksgiving, when my family included them in our grocery gift.
I don’t think of olives this way—olives are a normal thing to me. I like them on burritos at home, and quesadillas, and salads, and all kinds of things. I don’t even consider them to be expensive. But when times are hard, I suppose luxuries like olives can be hard to justify. Every year at Thanksgiving I think about that family and their olives.
So today, when we gather with friends and family, or with pets and TV, or even alone, we may take a moment to pause and contemplate our blessings–even as some of us might be having a hard time making ends meet, some of us wonder if we’ll have a job next week, some of us are spending the feast day alone for the first time, missing family members and friends no longer with us. In a season of joy and exuberance and excess, we stop to remember from where we have come. We remember the many generations before us who have made our lives possible. We remember the One who has blessed us and guided us to this place. We give thanks to God, who is always good. To use a cliché, we count our blessings and find that, even though the economy looks dim, there are still too many blessings to count.
It is important to give thanks. And not just once a year, on the fourth Thursday of November. Not just when we sit at a table laden down with a feast. Not just when the whole family is together. All the time. Every day. “Give thanks in all circumstances” Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians. “Give thanks to the Lord for God is good.” And in Philippians: “If there is anything excellent, think about these things.” Gratitude doesn’t require its own holiday—it’s meant to be a part of the fabric of our being, a natural response to all that has been given to us. Sometimes gratitude is really hard—it’s hard to give thanks in all circumstances. Really, all circumstances? Even in the midst of grief? Depression? Anxiety? Fear? But Paul, when writing his letter, didn’t qualify his statement. Just “give thanks in all circumstances.” I think that might be a clue that it isn’t supposed to be simple, but it’s also not as complex as we often make it out to be.
Gratitude isn’t really about a feeling or even a word—though a “thank you” can go a long way! I suspect this is true in many of our traditions, and I know it’s true in my scriptural and theological tradition: feelings, while important, are not the point. God is much more interested in how we choose to act, how we respond, how we love, than how we feel. I wonder, then, what gratitude looks like as an action rather than as a feeling?
As you give thanks this day, for what are you grateful? How can you live a life of gratitude every day, not just on the national holiday set aside for thanks?